Singapore holidays – Sampling Street Food
“Please don’t book or organise anything, while we’re in Singapore. Let’s wing it, shall we?” said Terry and the kids, when I mentioned making a table reservation at Restaurant Andre, voted #3 of Asia’s 50 best restaurants.
Weeks before we left for Singapore, I quizzed friends and researched the dining scene, trying to figure out some sort of food trail. My 12-day plan was to mix visits to hawkers centres with more upmarkets venues ( like Andre! ). I think I scared my lot with the idea of spending a fortune in a high-end establishment when there is so much good food to be enjoyed in cafes and hawkers centres, so I did as I was told and totally winged it!
To be honest, there is an incredible amount of delicious food to eat in the island city, and the diversity of ethnicities present means a formidable choice of cuisines: Chinese, Malay and Indian food make up the bulk of the offering but many restaurants also offer Western and other foods from around the world. Our holidays turned into a massively tasty food trail thru Singapore, from the casual to the fancy, the wonderful to simply meh ( is that a word? ), and the cheap to ridiculously pricey!
Every morning, we started with breakfast in our apartment complex the Village Residence. Even though the apartment came with a full kitchen, breakfast was included during the week, served in a separate apartment purposely set up. Displayed buffet style, the selection would include sweet pastries, fruits, cereals, yoghurt, and a salad as well as hot choices like egg dishes, cocktail sausages, baked beans and mini quiches. The hot menu, cooked by the lovely staff ladies, changed everyday to provide variety to the residents who I suspect were on long term stay ( this residence is widely used by relocating expats, we’re told ). So it became a game with the kids, guessing what treat would await in the breakfast room: waffles, pancakes, sausage rolls, even samosas…? I became quite partial to Kaya Toast ( a jam made from coconut, eggs, sugar and pandan leaves served on buttered toasted bread, a local specialty ) and strong coffee. Sometimes, when still full from the day before, I’d have a small bowl of salad to keep light.
Lunch would invariably be at a hawker centre or a food court. The difference is mostly in the setting, while the food is just as tasty no matter where: hawker centres are traditional eating places for Singaporeans, they are generally open-sided structures, as in under a roof, but no walls, definitely not air-conditionned, with a row of food stalls offering different local cuisines. Food courts are basically air-conditonned hawker centres found in shopping malls, with more spacious food stalls. As these get very busy at peak hour, we learnt quickly about the local etiquette of bagging a table first, leaving one of the kids to mind the seats while the rest of us would wander around to order. Another smart move would be to wait for the crowds to die down, but then a lot of stalls have ran out of food!
Beside enjoying some of the tastiest food, the best part about hawker food is the wallet friendly prices. Some dishes start as low as S$3.50 ( for the noodles ) up to S$12 ( for a plate of satays ) and drinks can be had for S$1. I am telling you, this is foodie heaven!
Some of the hawker centres we enjoyed:
- Chinatown Complex Food Centre – Located on the second floor, this is probably the biggest hawker centre in Singapore with over 250 stalls. Our guide Leong from Betelbox Tours took us there, and explained the rating system for every stall, as granted by the health authorities: A for best, thru to D for worst. This is relatively recent, part of an endeavour by the government to “clean up” the hawkers industry by moving food sellers from the streets to an integrated centre where they not only can share common utilities but also make it easier for customers to “shop around”. We were offered our first samples of Peranakan cuisine: popiah ( a thin pancake filled with vegetables, like a fresh spring roll)
chicken rice ( poached chicken served with shallots and ginger dressing, along with rice, soup and chili sauce )
and chwee kueh ( steamed rice cakes topped with chopped preserved radish and chili sauce)
Leong fetched us some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, a very refreshing drink in the humid heat which will become the beverage of choice while out and about. There is a wet market located on the basement where you can buy fresh produce ( I didn’t, I just couldn’t see the point in me cooking in the apartment! ) and inexpensive souvenirs on the ground floor which makes for an all in one destination if you’re pressed for time!
- Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre – We met our friends Bob and Doreen there. It is about 45mn by MRT from downtown, located right above the MRT station and next to the bus interchange so we didn’t have to walk too far. After the usual hunt for a table ( made harder than usual as there were 6 of us!) I happily let Doreen, who lives locally, pick most of the dishes: nasi padang ( steamed rice with a variety of meat and vegetables on the side ) for Marc
savoury mince and egg for Anne who was overwhelmed with the choices!
For us it was oyster omelette and singapore noodles. I selected char lor mee ( yellow noodles with pork and gravy ) and mutton ribs soup ( not such a popular choice! ), and we added a dozen satays to nibble on to soak up the beers!
- Tiong Bahru Market – a short bus ride from the apartment, I took Marc with me on a mission to sample as much as we could manage! We arrived around 11am, and enjoyed the place nearly to ourselves. Started with a fresh avocado milkshake ( the secret is in the condensed milk! ), felt brave and tried a grass jelly drink. Quite popular in Singapore, it is supposed to have cooling properties, made from a herbal plant called mesona chinensis. It tasted super sweet, a bit like bubblegum, and honestly felt like I was slurping jelly worms. It was not bad, just weird and neither Marc or I could finish it.
We stuck to savoury dishes after that: wonton noodles for him
bak chor mee for me ( minced pork noodles, my absolute favourite dish of the whole holidays!)
and by the time we finished our meals, the lunch time crowd had gathered, queues forming around the most popular stalls. As busy as it was, I liked the fact that there were not that many tourists, and the locals were so friendly, when I asked them where they got their yummy looking plate of noodles from they enthusiastically pointed to the stall !
We picked up some chwee kueh, carrot cake ( nothing to do with carrots, it is a fried white radish and rice flour cake, mixed with eggs, garlic and spices), and nonya kuehs ( steamed rice flour and coconut cakes ) to go so that Terry and Anne could have their own hawker picnic at the apartment.
Some of the food courts we enjoyed:
- Rasapura Markets – we discovered this slick food court on our first day, while visiting Marina Bay Sands Mall. Flanked by an ice skating rink, the stalls cover most bases, from beef noodle soup to Hong Kong roasted meats and Mee Rebus. They also include western choices like pizzas and sizzling steaks, which came in handy for Anne when tired of Asian food. This is not the biggest, but probably the busiest food court we’ve been to: on the 3 occasions we came down ( for lunch and dinner ) twice we circled around for approx 15 minutes before finding a table, once we gave up and ate standing up at one of the high benches surrounding the rink. Prices are higher than local hawker centres ( S$15 for a roasted meat meal) ) but it is still a bargain compared to other eating options in the mall.
- Food Republic – with 13 atriums spread out on the island, this is no ordinary food court. The kids and I ate at the Somerset venue, located in the middle of the 313@Somerset mall. It takes up the entire length of the building, can seat 1000 people, features 22 food stalls and 4 mini-restaurants! Each stalls has a clearly identified character of its own: Padang Kitchen, Beef noodles, Indian delights, Fried Chicken…Each of us made a point of grabbing a meal for under S$10, and came back with plenty of change! While you can buy drinks from a dedicated stall, there are also attendants “aunties” pushing carts around tables, offering fresh lime juice or bottled water for S$1.
- Takashimaya Food Village – Ok, this one is in the basement of the super exclusive Takashimaya Department Store on Orchard Road. It offers your usual hawker food with an emphasis on Japanese cuisine. The setting is a bit different, as you are also surrounded by upmarket stalls selling French chocolates, Tea sets, beautifully wrapped imported fruits…
We happened to be there during the Takashimaya’s Food Lovers Fiesta, which gathered over 50 stalls in the store’s square. None of us bothered with a traditional meal, instead we queued to taste the irresistible morsels on offer: anchovy sushi roll (ok)pork sausages ( yum !)
deep fried squids ( too much!! ), cold matcha tea ( intriguing)
, durian sago pomelo ( I was curious, never again!)…
it was all interesting, but nothing that I would rush to order again.
Well, that just about wraps up the street food, which we enjoyed mostly at lunch. Did you notice I hardly mentioned drinks? The only daytime beverage I had was water or juice. The reason was primarily because of the heat, and alcoholic drinks are not the best to quench a thirst ( though Terry will disagree! ). Another reason was that we were on the go all the time, and a glass of wine would have slowed me down to the point of writing off the rest of the day. Beside, alcoholic drinks are expensive in Singapore, particularly wine and spirits which are not for sale in hawker centres. Surprisingly beer is available there at a reasonable price, which was lucky for Terry who is very partial to a cold lager when eating spicy food !!